Choosing the Best Soft Cooler

We test and rate some of the best soft coolers available

July 11, 2016

Once upon a time, companies such as Coleman and Igloo dominated the world of keeping things cold outdoors. In terms of volume of units sold, they probably remain the 800-pound gorillas. But Yeti, Engel and a few other brands took the game up a notch with bearproof, crushproof, bash-up-and-down-on-the-deck-proof coolers, which caused traditional cooler makers to develop similar competitive products.

Just when Coleman (with its Esky) and Igloo (with its Sportsman) were getting their game on, the Yeti Hopper and Engel Backpack coolers moved the playing field altogether — again. These new, soft coolers have re-energized the marketplace with easier-to-pack, stuffable sidewalls and watertight-zippered, colder coolers. Now it’s game on — again.

How We Tested
We filled each soft cooler to capacity with ice to the level that just barely let us zip them up tightly. We pre-chilled them overnight, then drained and topped them off. Next, we placed them outdoors where they’d receive equal sun and shade. Each day we drained the water and resealed them. We soon realized each cooler was designed for a different objective, and an arbitrary ice retention test wasn’t a fair measure of their capabilities. One small cooler was ideal for day tripping, so waiting three days to measure the remaining ice wouldn’t suffice. Instead, we checked each day to see when the soft coolers lost enough ice and when it could no longer keep its contents cold enough.


Ice Retention: We filled the ­coolers, placed them in equal sunlight and drained them each day. Each cooler’s test ended when the ice was less than 15 percent of capacity.

Leakage: All our test coolers leaked from the zipper — even a drop or two escaped the Yeti Hopper. Others weren’t designed to be waterproof. We tipped them up and noted the water flow. Some zippers served as drain strainers, some had to be opened to drain effectively or, in the case of the Yeti, to drain at all.

Cleanup: We evaluated each cooler on ease of cleanup by dabbing some swampy muck on the lids and letting it dry before we hosed them off. We noted the effort required to clean them and whether they hosed off easily or required brushing or detergent.


Interior Cleanup: We mucked up the coolers on the inside too, then rinsed and wiped them dry. Some liners were snug fits inside, leaving no wrinkles or flaps to hold dirt — a desirable trait. If they required extra effort to wipe out the water in multiple folds, we noted it. These traits are also important when air drying to prevent interior mildew.

Engel Soft-Sided Backpack

Engel Soft-Sided Backpack

Engel Soft-Sided Backpack Bill Doster

Size: 23 quarts

The three-layer insulation system sandwiches thermal-insulating foam between two reflective foil liners protected by the tough 500-by-500 denier nylon with a thermoplastic polyurethane coating. Surfaces are Microban-treated to kill bacteria and mildew. The main ice compartment features a removable inner liner for easy cleaning or inexpensive replacement should a puncture occur. Four handy D-rings are positioned to secure the cooler to the deck. The dual-direction zipper is leak-resistant, limiting drainage should the cooler tip.


Zippers and Closures: The gasketed, dual-pull zipper is not completely watertight but closes left, right or in the middle, giving easy access to the contents.

Portability Features: This was the most conveniently portable in our test thanks to the wide, padded shoulder straps. A top grab handle adds convenience, and dual hand straps with padding provide a third way to carry it comfortably and securely.

Special Features: A zippered side compartment keeps sandwiches cool and dry.


Exterior Dimensions: 1.3 cubic feet; 33 exterior dry quarts; 21 interior dry quarts

Insulation: ¾ inch on sides; ¾ inch on bottom; none on top

Exterior Cleanup: The white laminated fabric exterior rinses well of grime and mud, but more tenacious grime, such as grease, required detergent.

Interior Cleanup: The removable liner wipes out easily and dries quickly when removed from the cooler.

Stays Cold: 3.5 days

Ratio of Capacity to Footprint: 68%

Leakage: 1 cup in 15 seconds

Yeti Hopper 40

Yeti Hopper 40

Yeti Hopper 40 Bill Doster

Size: 40 quarts

This trendsetter combines a rubberized ballistic 840 denier-nylon fabric laminated inside and out with thermoplastic polyurethane, a tough, watertight, oil- and puncture-resistant plastic used in white-water and life rafts. The welded interior is food-grade, antimicrobial, mildew-resistant plastic formed to perfectly fit the exterior walls in a wrinkle-free manner. It’s good at keeping things cold and looks great.

Zippers and Closures: The Hydrolock zipper is airtight, and seams are radio-frequency welded.

Portability Features: The end handles, carry straps and shoulder-strap buckles are stitched and reinforced on nylon panels that, in turn, are radio-frequency welded to the shell.

Special Features: The tough EVA foam bottom is radio-frequency welded for strength and firm enough for stand-up stability. D-rings allow it to be lashed to a boat deck.

Exterior/Interior Size: 2.3 cubic feet; 60 exterior dry quarts; 41 interior dry quarts

Insulation: 1 inch on sides; 1½ inches on bottom; none on top

Exterior Cleanup: The exterior surface is tough and seams are welded. Using a brush and soapy water, mud and dirt came off easily. Grease required detergent.

Interior Cleanup: The interior is a smooth-faced, food-grade bucket impervious to stains and easily wiped dry.

Stays Cold: 3 days

Ratio of Capacity to Footprint: 68%

Leakage: We turned the Hopper upside down and the zipper dripped an insignificant, barely noticeable amount of water in 15 seconds. We rezipped and retested with equal results. We retested the Hopper and proved its watertightness.

Igloo Marine Ultra Square 36

Igloo Marine Ultra Square 36

Igloo Marine Ultra Square 36 Bill Doster

Size: 36 quarts

This is the more rigid of our soft-sided models with 1 inch of firm but flexible foam insulation inside. The top is notched to fit snugly to the sides, even when not zipped — a great design that locks out heat. Igloo says the exterior tarp material is UV-protected, and the interior is heat-welded vinyl cut to fit snugly inside the compartment, minimizing wrinkly flaps. Its semirigid construction makes it compressible in tight spots but lets it stand securely on its own when required. Two nonskid bottom rails keep it in place.

Zippers and Closures: Heavy-duty zippers are not watertight, but the interlocking feature between the lid and sides, plus the zippered flap, minimized leakage in our test and helped keep this cooler cold.

Portability Features: Foam-padded handles on the ends, plus a double strap with a neoprene closure to bind them, make the cooler convenient to transport.

Special Features: Mesh pockets on the sides keep gear handy, a bungee cord on top keeps a beach towel in place, and a zippered pocket on the front is great for a smartphone.

Exterior/Interior Size: 1.8 cubic feet; 46 exterior dry quarts; 28 interior dry quarts

Insulation: 1 inch each on sides, bottom and top

Exterior Cleanup: The tarp exterior sheds mud and dirt, cleaning easily.

Interior Cleanup: The form-fitted liner eases cleaning and drying.

Stays Cold: 2.5 days

Ratio of Capacity to Footprint: 64%

Leakage: Excess water easily drained through the closed zipper.

Igloo Marine Ultra 36-Can Snap Down

Igloo Marine Ultra 36-Can Snap Down

Igloo Marine Ultra 36-Can Snap Down Bill Doster

Size: 36 cans

This is the more traditional soft cooler design and will stuff easily into odd-shaped compartments. It has the same sharp-looking and tough UV-protected tarp exterior and heat-welded interior as the Ultra Square cooler. The insulation is about ½-inch thick. The snap-down design allows the cooler to be left open like an ice tub. When it’s zipped up with the ends snapped down, its rectangular shape is compact, convenient to carry and it can also stand up, keeping liquid inside from spilling.

Zippers and Closures: The zipper is lighter than the Ultra Square, but we like the way it folds up square like an origami sculpture for a compact footprint.

Portability Features: Web straps wrap around the bottom from side to side and are sewn in place to cradle the cooler for secure transport. A shoulder strap eases the load.

Special Features: A wallet and phone compartment on the front keeps gear organized and secure.

Exterior/Interior Size: 1 cubic foot; 26 exterior dry quarts; 18 interior dry quarts

Insulation: ¾ inch each on sides, bottom and top

Exterior Cleanup: The tarp material hosed off easily and resisted both mud and oily grime.

Interior Cleanup: The heat-welded inner liner is tough and easy to clean, but the loose-fitting material has wrinkles and flaps that require care in cleaning beneath them.

Stays Cold: 2.5 days

Ratio of Capacity to Footprint: 66%

Leakage: Excess water easily drained through the closed zipper.

Coleman Large Collapsible Sport

Coleman Large Collapsible Sport

Coleman Large Collapsible Sport Bill Doster

Size: 75 cans

We liked this one right away for its fold-flat-as-a-book design (it’s 4 inches thick, flattened), but it did come at the expense of insulation (just ¼ inch on the sides), translating to a high capacity for its footprint. Its top and bottom are semirigid, ballistic nylon-covered panels. The top and sides meet snugly to keep cold in, and the four cup holders on top are Coleman trademarks. Folding panels on the side and bottom Velcro into place to keep it standing tall under load. It is definitely a day cooler for carrying on the boat, and its soft sides won’t mar finishes. It held the most ice in our test, giving it an advantage in our thaw test.

Zippers and Closures: The heavy-duty zipper opens right or left, and a bottle opener is hitched to the pull.

Portability Features: Rubber pads on the end handles make standard cooler transport easy.

Special Features: There is a front mesh pocket for sunscreen and a large snack pouch inside the lid.

Exterior/Interior Size: 2.3 cubic feet; 59 exterior dry quarts; 48 measured capacity dry quarts

Insulation: 3/8 inch on sides; 1/2 inch each on bottom and top

Exterior Cleanup: The lid and bottom are tough nylon denier laminated to a semirigid clamshell. Dirt was more tenacious there, but a hose nozzle narrowed to a hard spray removed the dirt.

Interior Cleanup: The vinyl liner fits well, eliminating slack and flaps for easy wipe down and complete drying.

Stays Cold: 2.5 days

Ratio of Capacity to Footprint: 83%

Leakage: Zipper is not watertight.

Coleman Backpack

Coleman Backpack

Coleman Backpack Bill Doster

Size: 18 cans

For some people, feather-light portability gives a cooler premium status, and that’s the target customer of this 18-can soft cooler from Coleman. Its heat-welded interior liner made of reflective polymer sheeting is antimicrobial and mildew-resistant. The exterior is smartly accented with durable stitching and tightly woven stain- and mildew-resistant nylon. The back has added padding to carry easily with the shoulder straps. The firm nonskid bottom gives the cooler a solid footprint to keep it standing. Mesh side pockets hold water bottles or other gear, and a zippered front pocket keeps a phone or wallet secure.

Zippers and Closures: The zipper isn’t watertight, but it strains and drains the contents and opens from either side.

Portability Features: Heavily padded shoulder straps let it live up to its name admirably, and a top-center lift handle is convenient to grab and lift it from a compartment.

Special Features: Keep a sandwich cool and dry in the lid pocket. A bottle opener is permanently attached.

Exterior/Interior Size: 0.7 cubic feet; 17 exterior dry quarts; 13 measured capacity dry quarts

Insulation: 1/2 inch each on sides, bottom and top

Exterior Cleanup: The combination of reflective mylar and tightly woven denier nylon make it a hose-and-go cooler, and grease came off with little resistance.

Interior Cleanup: The flexible foil liner wiped out easily.

Stays Cold: 1.5 days

Ratio of Capacity to Footprint: 74%

Leakage: Zipper is not watertight.


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